DIFFERENT AGES CALL FOR VARIED RESPONSES
Children are naturally curious about death, but their age and familial attitudes cause varied behaviors, which means a parent may need to impart a variety of coping skills. How a child responds depends on:
- the child’s age and maturity level
- the strength of the bond with the pet
- developmental stage
- the parent’s behavior.
Here are some ways to help your child cope with the loss of a pet.
CHILDREN AT 2 AND 3 YEARS
Young children lack the experience to understand the loss of a pet, but they sense that you coping with grief and model your behavior. This means it’s acceptable to show your own feelings as a normal reaction to loss. It’s OK to explain that the pet has died and will not come back. For children at this age, it’s critical that they understand that they are not responsible for the death. It’s also important to maintain the child’s routine. Young children will easily accept new pets.
THE 4 TO 6 YEAR OLD
Children may wonder if their pet is sleeping or continuing their activities. Sometimes they’re angry with their pet. Feelings of grief may translate into stomachaches or changes in sleeping or eating habits. Casual, matter-of-fact talks with the child can be reassuring and make the child comfortable with discussing his or her feelings. Creative expression, such as drawing pictures and writing stories, can help. Children of this age can also be included in funeral arrangements.
Curiosity and the awareness of death as irreversible grow throughout the elementary school years—and children may be concerned about losing a parent. Grief may appear as an academic slump, fighting or physical complaints. A pet’s death can spark memories of previous loss and magnify the experience. It’s best to be available to talk, draw out a child’s concerns and honestly answer questions even when they seem morbid. Children may also cling or withdraw. Either way, it is important to make sure children understand that they are not responsible for the loss of the pet.
GRIEF IN ADOLESCENTS
Similar to other upsetting events, a teen’s reaction to the loss of a pet can range from indifference to traumatic. Ongoing conflicts with a parent may exacerbate the teen’s ability to express grief—making supportive friends an important aspect to coping with their emotions. A parent’s patience and flexibility—providing a hug, a talk or simply some space—is the best approach.
Even young adults can be deeply affected by the death of a pet. Often, the animal is one that they have had since childhood, making the loss particularly difficult. In addition, because they may have left home, they may feel guilty and regret not having spent more time with the pet. Stress from the challenges of living on their own or handling the demands of college can increase their grief. Being away from home makes it difficult for them to say goodbye to the pet and share the experience with family members who understand their loss.